05 February 2011

The Lake Michigan Navy

I recently read an article about the recovery of an F4U-1 'Birdcage' Corsair fighter from the depths of Lake Michigan, near Chicago. There are no flying examples of this particular variant, so it will be restored to at least display condition at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.

The plane is in quite good condition after being submerged for nearly seventy years. In recent years, a Dauntless dive bomber was pulled out of the lake, also in fair condition.

As well as a very rare find-an old Vought Vindicator torpedo bomber, many of which were destroyed at the Battle of Midway. The plane has of course been restored to what it would have looked like in those dark  days of early 1942.

And how did so many old warbirds end up at the bottom of Lake Michigan, in the middle of the United States? In one of those oddities which America is famous for (like all of the outdoors stuff like parks being run by the Department of the Interior), the US Navy has its main training base between Chicago and Milwaukee. Great Lakes Naval Training Center.

During World War II, the Navy needed aviators that were qualified and trained to fly off carrier decks. The Navy also needed carriers in the Fleet, and not doing training duty off the Florida coast. So in a clever move, the Navy leased two lake steamships (in those days, steamships ran regular routes between the cities along the Lakes), the Greater Buffalo and the Seeandbee.

A trip to the Navy Yard, and the two steamships emerged as USS Sable and USS Wolverine.

At first glance these ships look like aircraft carriers, but neither vessel had a hangar deck or permanent aircraft handling facilities, so they were given a 'miscellaneous auxiliary' designation (IX) instead of the more familiar 'CV' for carriers. Both ships were given a 500 foot long deck (about the size of the flight deck on an escort carrier of the time) and homeported in Chicago. Prospective carrier pilots would take off from Glenview Air Station and fly east over Chicago and the suburbs out into Lake Michigan, learning to spot a carrier on open water and how to land on same in all weather conditions. The Great Lakes can be rough, and the decks of the Sable and Wolverine would pitch and roll just like they were the Yorktown, San Jacinto, or Kitkun Bay on the high seas.

On a calm day, one could stand on Navy Pier or Oak Street Beach and watch prospective aviators land, take off, or do bump and gos on the Great Lakes' very own Navy!

Most of these pilots were right out of primary training, and as fitting pilots in training, they occasionally made a mistake or two along the way, like hitting the barrier:

...or missing the wires and barrier altogether and putting their plane in the drink. Some few went down with their mistakes, but thankfully not too many.

Many thousands of pilots learned their trade on board Sable and Wolverine, as well as hundreds of landing signal officers and aircraft handlers. The two ships, while not ideal 'training carriers', served well until the end of the war, after which they were sold for scrapping.

Many people don't think of the Midwest as a great shipbuilding region, but during the war many of our 'fleet boat' submarines were built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and sailed through the Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. The bulk of our tank landing ships were built in Seneca, Illinois, and moved down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. Yards up and down the Mississippi River valley built scores of the small patrol craft and auxiliary vessels the Navy needed to augment and support the fighting fleets.

Today, no active warships are stationed in the Great Lakes, but there are plenty of museum vessels dotting their shores: submarines Cobia, Silversides, Croaker, and Cod; cruiser Little Rock, destroyer The Sullivans, and on the Canadian side, their famous Tribal class destroyer HMCS Haida.

The Great Lakes Navy-a complete flotilla which even at one time could launch and land a very tiny air force!

yankeedog out.


  1. Very interesting piece YDog, never would have guessed that being the case. Good to hear they'll restore the bird.

  2. Its not suprising the great lakes folk we so enterprising in war given they face the constant threat from their neighbors, damn Canadians.

  3. Lovely cold, relatively anerobic & low salinity water makes for great preservation. Most significant it's kept the greedy snatching hands of the wreckers & scrappers off them for 60 odd years.
    Undersea archeology comes a very close second to Australian paleo megafauna on my personal cool-o-scope. IE if I won lottery and didn't have to work, how would I fill my days?

    Good yarn Y Dog.

  4. Bangar-We find those planes and they'll get restored. There aren't that many of any of those types around (except for Texans/SNJs/Harvards) so they're at a premium.

    Barnesy-At one time the Great Lakes were a battlefield (The War of 1812 v. Britain). One of the major naval engagements was the Battle of Lake Erie. Admiral Perry's brig 'Niagara' was preserved/rebuilt and still sails out of Erie, Pennsylvania.

    NBob-That's exactly right. The water is perfect for keeping underwater wrecks preserved. And the Great Lakes have plenty of shipwrecks to keep underwater archaeology types interested for years. The Lakes can be open-sea rough at times, and a lot of ships and crews were (and are) lost.

  5. If memory serves me correctly, smaller water craft were built in Kansas City. I'd have to research that though.

    Great entry, YD.

    On the Outer Marches

  6. Murph-Almost certainly KC built some small craft. The Missouri River is navigable a good ways farther north from there.

  7. Nice work YD, never would have guessed there was a Great Lakes navy - probably bigger by the look than the entire NZ one to boot.

  8. Drej-Yes. Considerably larger than the modern New Zealand Navy-though the NZ Navy of WWII would have been a match. It's good to see so many ships of the Fleet preserved, though.

  9. Great post once again YD. Sort of stuff you'd expect Clive Cussler (at his best) to write about.

  10. Therbs-Since Cussler is also something of an amateur underwater archaelogist (his team did recover the Confed sub Hunley), I could see him writing similar. But much better than yours truly can!

  11. Seaching for Torpedo Bomber that crashed July 4 1950.On board were 3 men were headed to Groose Ile ,Mich and then back to base in Virginia.1 of those men was my uncle Seaman Francis P Burke I recently found an article with his and the name of Ensign J L Holt both from Illinois.Their ship went down and was never recovered.The Vidette Messenger issued July 6 1950 .I'm searching for info for our Mom.Any help ! I will keep looking.Thank You Laura Schoewe